Nearly everyone at the South Pasadena Senior Center knows the name of their guardian angel.
They call her Lili. Her real name is Liliana Torres, and she recently told the Review that she’s stepping down as the center’s manager and community services supervisor after 33 years at the facility on Oxley Street.
“We are all having a hard time with it,” said her boss, Sheila Pautsch, of Torres’ upcoming departure, pausing to choke back tears as she spoke to me last week. “She has devoted her life to us.
“They say people are replaceable, but I don’t know about her. We’re losing an angel.”
Torres started at the Senior Center as a receptionist at 23 and has been at the center ever since. She is leaving on Jan. 22.“It seems like she has always been there for us,” said Pautsch, the city’s community services director. “She’s worked through her own cancer, deaths and illness in her family. She has seemingly always put the Senior Center first in her life.”
Now, at 57, Torres is helping her husband in his battle with cancer.
“This is probably one of the most difficult decisions and transitions in my life,” Torres said. “I gave the Senior Center 200%. Sometimes the center came before my family and myself. I valued the residents and members of the Senior Center and found that they were my second family.
“They would stop by my office regularly to update me on their health or daily challenges,” she continued. “I would listen, offer resources or offer an ear to listen. I was committed to providing programming that enhanced and improved their lives as they faced their ups and downs with aging.
“So walking away will be difficult, the tears will flow and my heart will be a little sad knowing that I won’t be walking through the doors of 1102 [Oxley St.] any longer.”
The center — which serves about 400 people age 60 and older — has been closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Torres hopes to say goodbye with a drive-by celebration with cupcakes on Jan. 20, when she will hand out thank you notes along with treats to seniors and her colleagues.
It has been an exceptionally hard year for Torres. The pandemic closed the facility, wildfire threatened her home, and her husband has been sick.
She has responded by organizing programs to help her second family. She has reached out to help provide meals for those who need them or need to hear a friendly voice over the telephone. She also has made sure that Dial-a-Ride continues to provide transportation to doctor visits and other appointments.
Dealing with challenges is nothing new for Torres. The limited space of the Senior Center contrasts with the increasing needs of its members. The biggest change over the past 10 years, according to Torres, is the increased number of fitness and movement classes and activities. There have also been weekly presentations on natural health and alternative forms of improving health. These have involved speakers from health organizations and local hospitals as well as natural health practitioners.
Torres is especially proud of the establishment of the Senior Citizens Foundation of South Pasadena to support the needs of the center. She also points to community workshops such as “What to Do About Mom and Dad” which she and the center started in 2018. The workshops provided a panel of professionals to speak on topics and challenges that families face in caring for their loved ones. The center was offering two other workshops per year until the pandemic closed the center.
William Cullinane, current president of the foundation, said: “Liliana represents something much greater than being director of the Senior Center.
“Liliana is that all too rare reminder of what it means to be a public servant in the best of meanings,” he said. “Service above self is not a motto for Liliana, but something she lives every day on behalf of our community.”
Gerontologist Alexandria Levitt, treasurer of the foundation, said its creation was so important because the funding from the city is limited due to competing budgetary demands.
“Liliana is unique in her position in many ways,” she said. “She knows the names of everyone who comes in the door of the Senior Center. She knows the names and situations of all those too frail to come in to the center. She serves as a lifeline to adult children who live here or fall away and call with concerns about their parents in town.
“Her enthusiasm and energy are incredible and didn’t slow down during the pandemic. She has been a model civil servant, brimming with dedication and deep compassion for all those who use and need the Senior Center. These are qualities all too rare nowadays.”
Now, Torres hopes to have time to volunteer, not only at the center, but also working with hospice patients, assisting undocumented families and senior citizens.
“I have an eye on a few other programs,” she said. “I also hope to tackle many projects around my home that have been neglected over the years and to care for my family. Somewhere between all that, I want to get back into hiking, running and caring for my garden.”
Pautsch said that because of the pandemic and the current budget situation she is not sure if she will be able to hire right now to replace Torres. She knows, however, that the departure leaves a literal and figurative hole in the center of the center.
“She’s just always been there for us,” Pautsch said. “Whether it has been going and talking to a lonely senior, making sure someone is all right or organizing so many programs over the years.
“Lili’s always been there for us.”